Commentary Magazine


Topic: Raul Castro

Hugo Chavez, One Year On

 Today marks the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, and the world’s tyrants are mourning appropriately. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short break from invading Ukraine to send a message of sympathy to Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. “A year has passed since the demise of the extraordinary Venezuelan leader and great friend of mine, Hugo Chavez,” Putin wrote. “Through joint efforts, we can continue to put the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

 As I noted in a COMMENTARY post on this day last year, Chavez’s death was announced on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s passing. “It took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death,” I said. “One shudders at the thought that chavismo will last as long.” In the intervening months, we have witnessed Maduro come to power through a fraudulent election, the emergence of a siege economy with its attendant price controls and currency devaluations and, finally, the eruption of a student-led protest movement that seeks to point the chavistas to la Salida – the Exit. Surely, time is running out when it comes to putting “the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

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 Today marks the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, and the world’s tyrants are mourning appropriately. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short break from invading Ukraine to send a message of sympathy to Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. “A year has passed since the demise of the extraordinary Venezuelan leader and great friend of mine, Hugo Chavez,” Putin wrote. “Through joint efforts, we can continue to put the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

 As I noted in a COMMENTARY post on this day last year, Chavez’s death was announced on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s passing. “It took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death,” I said. “One shudders at the thought that chavismo will last as long.” In the intervening months, we have witnessed Maduro come to power through a fraudulent election, the emergence of a siege economy with its attendant price controls and currency devaluations and, finally, the eruption of a student-led protest movement that seeks to point the chavistas to la Salida – the Exit. Surely, time is running out when it comes to putting “the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

Except that, in periods of acute crisis, authoritarian regimes are far better equipped to retain power than the democratic counterparts. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq outlasted more than a decade of punishing sanctions. Ditto for the mullahs in Iran and for Robert Mugabe, another “great friend” of Chavez, who has just embarked on his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe.

These regimes stay in power chiefly because of their willingness to deploy brute force against their own populations, along with their readiness to enrich themselves and their cronies through systematic corruption and lucrative criminal activities (narcotics trafficking is a favored pursuit of the chavista Generals.) Crisis, when it descends, is explained to their subjects as deliberate sabotage on the part of an external predator, most often the United States. Hence Maduro’s constant refrain that the Venezuelan protests are the work of a few “fascists” acting under instructions from Washington.

It also helps to have a celebratory or commemorative occasion close at hand. Last week, Maduro attempted to take the wind out of the protests by announcing that the annual Carnival holiday had come early. Today, a slew of foreign leaders, including Cuban President Raul Castro, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s unrepentant Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, have arrived in Caracas to add an extra layer of gravitas to the official Chavez commemorations.

 What is now happening, as the respected Venezuelan writer Ibsen Martinez argues in a piece for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, is a shift from the “Washington consensus” to the “Havana consensus.” The Washington consensus refers to American-backed economic and democratic reforms that are denounced by opponents as “neoliberalism.” Contrastingly, the Havana consensus–so-called because of last month’s meeting of Latin American nations in the Cuban capital where absolute national sovereignty was affirmed as the continent’s guiding principle–essentially enables leaders like Maduro to fix elections and imprison dissidents at will.

 “Today, there’s no point shouting ‘Don’t leave us on our own!’ Martinez says. “The Venezuelan people can expect nothing of the regions leaders, everything depends on us.” He is right. No outside agency–not the UN, not the Organization of American States, and certainly not the United States government–is going to take charge of a rescue operation for Venezuela.

 Yet, despite outside indifference and Maduro’s best efforts to marginalize the opposition, the protests continue. Barricades erected by opposition activists have been reported all over Caracas and further demonstrations are planned in San Cristobal, the opposition stronghold in the west of the country. None of this, of course, portends the imminent death of chavismo, one year after Chavez’s end. But the anger on the streets of the country should remind Maduro that the growing numbers of Venezuelans opposed to his rule aren’t idly waiting for a foreign cavalry to arrive.  

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The Mockery of Cuba Sanctions Exceptions

Early in his administration, President Barack Obama lifted a number of long-standing sanctions on Cuba. According to the Washington Post report from the time:

White House officials said the decision to lift travel and spending restrictions on Americans with family on the island will provide new support for the opponents of Raúl and Fidel Castro’s government. And they said lifting the ban on U.S. telecommunications companies reaching out to the island will flood Cuba with information while providing new opportunities for businesses. Obama left in place the broad trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962. But just days before leaving to attend a summit with the leaders of South and Central America, he reversed restrictions that barred U.S. citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and lifted limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families. He also cleared away virtually all U.S. regulations that had stopped American companies from attempting to bring their high-tech services and information to the island.

One of the major exceptions to sanctions for non-Cuban Americans is the education exchange. Ted Bromund touched on the issue here at COMMENTARY about a year ago. The Treasury Department explains a bit about how this works, here. In short, “each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

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Early in his administration, President Barack Obama lifted a number of long-standing sanctions on Cuba. According to the Washington Post report from the time:

White House officials said the decision to lift travel and spending restrictions on Americans with family on the island will provide new support for the opponents of Raúl and Fidel Castro’s government. And they said lifting the ban on U.S. telecommunications companies reaching out to the island will flood Cuba with information while providing new opportunities for businesses. Obama left in place the broad trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962. But just days before leaving to attend a summit with the leaders of South and Central America, he reversed restrictions that barred U.S. citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and lifted limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families. He also cleared away virtually all U.S. regulations that had stopped American companies from attempting to bring their high-tech services and information to the island.

One of the major exceptions to sanctions for non-Cuban Americans is the education exchange. Ted Bromund touched on the issue here at COMMENTARY about a year ago. The Treasury Department explains a bit about how this works, here. In short, “each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

Not surprisingly, the idea of people-to-people and educational exchange appears to be interpreted liberally both by the Obama administration and by travel companies. This past week, I came across a “Journey to Cuba in 2013” brochure by the high-end travel company Travcoa. The brochure outlines a stellar 10-day itinerary, visiting Cienfugos, Santa Clara, Cayo Santa Maria, Remedios, the Bay of Pigs, Havana, and San Luis, all for around $7,000. The tourism must be great, but the educational opportunities appear fleeting: after lunch at a small paladar, the group can talk to its owner; at a small coastal village, talk to fisherman about fishing; visit a school and learn about Cuba’s education system; and visit a Santería priest to learn about the Santería religion. The museum guide at the Bay of Pigs will offer a Cuban perspective of that aborted invasion; while at another museum, guests can learn about Cuba’s efforts to promote literacy. At a Havana night club, tourists can learn about Cuban jazz.

I do not mean to diminish Travcoa—I’ve never been on their tours, but I know a number of people who have and speak very highly of their experience. The company is simply fulfilling a service to meet a demand, and it is not alone in doing so, as any Google search will indicate. The fact of the matter, though, is that the educational exchange the company promotes does not differ much from what tourists on non-educational trips to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, or Central Asia might do.

Now, the wisdom of Cuba sanctions is another issue. I support the sanctions, and will push back on those who wish to dismantle them simply because they see them as a relic from the past. The major problem with lifting the sanctions at this point is that the main beneficiaries of tourist dollars will not be the Cuban people, but rather the government which owns and operates most of the tourist facilities at which most high-end tourists will stay. Indeed, from what I understand from Cuba watchers, it is not simply the government which is invested most deeply in these facilities but the Cuban military and Raul Castro himself. The idea of pumping money into an aging and decrepit dictatorship risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

If the Obama administration is going to lift sanctions, however, it should simply declare its intention to do so, and defend its position against its critics. The idea that it can, however, with sleight of hand and an educational exemption eviscerate the remaining barriers to infusing the Castro regime with hard currency is an insult to intelligence, and diminishes legitimate educational exchanges elsewhere.

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About Those Cuban “Reforms” …

On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis, the latest headlines on the situation Cuba might give some cause for celebration. The New York Times‘s headline reads: Cuba Dropping Its Much-Reviled Exit Visa Requirement and Fox News is even more optimistic: Cuba to allow citizens to travel freely for the first time in 51 years. Undoubtedly this announcement from the Castro government was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the crisis that many historians have called the hottest moment of the Cold War, the moment the world came closest to nuclear war. While many journalists may have been writing pieces about the lack of political, social and economic progress in Cuba in the last fifty years before today’s announcement, they are instead cheering this latest development that makes the island nation seem like less of a prison for its citizens.

Close watchers of Cuban policy aren’t exactly optimistic about Raul Castro’s “reforms.” Capitol Hill Cubans, an influential website dedicated to “the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cuba” is thoroughly unimpressed:

The Castro regime — like Assad, Obiang and most other dictators — seeks to buy itself time by propagating the narrative of “reform.”

Because, of course, decades of brutal rule were somehow distractions to their “real” intentions all along.

Sadly, the media echoes this narrative.

But don’t forget to read the fine print at the end.

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On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis, the latest headlines on the situation Cuba might give some cause for celebration. The New York Times‘s headline reads: Cuba Dropping Its Much-Reviled Exit Visa Requirement and Fox News is even more optimistic: Cuba to allow citizens to travel freely for the first time in 51 years. Undoubtedly this announcement from the Castro government was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the crisis that many historians have called the hottest moment of the Cold War, the moment the world came closest to nuclear war. While many journalists may have been writing pieces about the lack of political, social and economic progress in Cuba in the last fifty years before today’s announcement, they are instead cheering this latest development that makes the island nation seem like less of a prison for its citizens.

Close watchers of Cuban policy aren’t exactly optimistic about Raul Castro’s “reforms.” Capitol Hill Cubans, an influential website dedicated to “the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cuba” is thoroughly unimpressed:

The Castro regime — like Assad, Obiang and most other dictators — seeks to buy itself time by propagating the narrative of “reform.”

Because, of course, decades of brutal rule were somehow distractions to their “real” intentions all along.

Sadly, the media echoes this narrative.

But don’t forget to read the fine print at the end.

For example, this morning CNN reports:

Starting next year, Cubans traveling abroad will face fewer hurdles leaving the country.

The official news site Granma reported Tuesday that the Cuban government will no longer require a travel permit and a letter of invitation.

The move is part of the reforms that President Raul Castro promised when he took office in 2008.”

But don’t forget the fine print:

The new change, however, does not mean that anyone wanting to travel will get a passport.

‘The ordinary passport will be issued to the Cuban citizens who meet the requirements of the Migration Law,’ which is being modified, according to the report in Granma.

While the report does not say how the law will be altered, it does add that the government will fight brain — and money — drain ‘from the aggressive and subversive plans of the US government and its allies.’ It will do so by leaving in place measures to preserve ‘human capital created by the Revolution from the theft of talents practiced by the powerful nations.’”

In other words, nothing is really changing, other than the verbiage.

With Raul Castro’s takeover of the Cuban government four years ago from his brother, many hoped that the totalitarian government would ease its grip on power, instituting reforms that could bring Cuba into the 21st century. Like with North Korea’s recent leadership change, we have seen nothing of the sort. Yesterday Max discussed how, despite some surface reforms instituted by the newly appointed Kim Jong-un, North Korea remains a wasteland for the majority of its citizenry. Cuba, like North Korea, has spent the majority of the last century ruled by a family that has no desire to give up the luxurious lifestyle they lead for the sake of democracy. Max explained it perfectly yesterday in regards to North Korea, and unfortunately, the same applies to Cuba: “Sadly, we cannot expect real change as long as [insert Communist tyrant's name here] remains in power because he knows that a serious opening will jeopardize the good life that he has inherited. To expect otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.”

Sadly, as with the stories about North Korea’s relaxation of dress code standards to allow more Western attire, the media appears to have fallen for this distraction, playing right into the hands of yet another Communist dictator. For the victims of Castro and their family members in the West, it will soon become clear that today’s headlines don’t signify any shift from the status-quo.

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Pope’s Divisions Need Some Help in Cuba

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba presented a unique challenge to the Communist dictatorship that continues to oppress the island. Though Raul Castro met with the Pope and did his best to associate the regime with the religious spectacle of the public Mass, there was no mistaking the Pontiff’s message. Calling for “authentic freedom,” he said spiritual freedom isn’t possible without political liberty.

Yet while Pope Benedict’s words will inspire the Cuban people to hope for something better in the future, Cuba remains one of the least free nations on the planet. Reportedly, the Communist authorities took no chances about the papal visit encouraging agitation for freedom by arresting known dissidents and blocking their cell phone transmissions. The question now is whether Western intellectuals and others who have been campaigning for more trade with Cuba and efforts to normalize relations with the Castro government will draw the right conclusions from these events.

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Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba presented a unique challenge to the Communist dictatorship that continues to oppress the island. Though Raul Castro met with the Pope and did his best to associate the regime with the religious spectacle of the public Mass, there was no mistaking the Pontiff’s message. Calling for “authentic freedom,” he said spiritual freedom isn’t possible without political liberty.

Yet while Pope Benedict’s words will inspire the Cuban people to hope for something better in the future, Cuba remains one of the least free nations on the planet. Reportedly, the Communist authorities took no chances about the papal visit encouraging agitation for freedom by arresting known dissidents and blocking their cell phone transmissions. The question now is whether Western intellectuals and others who have been campaigning for more trade with Cuba and efforts to normalize relations with the Castro government will draw the right conclusions from these events.

Much of the recent discussion about Cuba in the United States has centered on the idea that American sanctions and continued attempts to isolate the island are counter-productive. It’s true that the Castro brothers and their minions have used the U.S. boycott to foster a sense of paranoia that has buttressed the Communists’ hold on power. But the idea that Cuban freedom can be won by American trade is a myth. In the best case scenario, the Communists might move toward a hybrid systems like China’s in which capitalism is encouraged while allowing the regime to maintain its vise-like grip on political power. The result might be more wealth but no freedom. That’s why the Pope’s clarion call for “authentic freedom” is so important.

Soviet mass-murderer Josef Stalin once mocked the power of the Papacy by asking how many divisions the Pope had. The answer was one that wouldn’t be properly understood in the Kremlin until a generation later when the courageous Pope John Paul II used his bully pulpit to advance the cause of liberty in Eastern Europe. But the Pope’s spiritual divisions didn’t topple the Berlin Wall by themselves. They needed the assistance of an American superpower whose leader wasn’t afraid to speak up for the cause of freedom.

But Pope Benedict can’t count on the assistance of a president like Ronald Reagan. In its three-plus years in office the Obama administration has been the least interested of any American government in a generation. Though U.S. officials asked the Vatican for assistance in securing the freedom of Alan Gross, an American who is unjustly incarcerated in Cuba, the Castro regime knows it need not fear a concerted push from Washington.

The Pope’s divisions in Cuba should not be underestimated but, like the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, they need active and vocal assistance from the United States. Were President Obama to prioritize Cuban freedom, the pressure on the weakened regime might make a difference. It’s time for this administration to put itself on the side of those actively working for the Cuban people, not businessmen looking to profit from cooperating with tyrants.

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What’s The Difference Between Obama and McCain?

John McCain’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg is an interesting counterpoint to Barack Obama’s. In McCain’s interview, you will find not a trace of moral equivalence, no infatuation with Philip Roth (whom Obama apparently imagines as the paragon of American Judaism–perhaps needing a more up to date understanding of Roth’s legacy among many American Jews), and no hesitancy to denounce Islamic jihadism.

Reading the two interviews side-by-side provides a telling contrast between two world views and two approaches to foreign affairs. McCain goes out of his way to stress the role of diplomacy at the right level and the right time, but the main differences between the two candidates are stark. These three questions and answers sum it up:

JG: What do you think motivates Iran?

JM: Hatred. I don’t try to divine people’s motives. I look at their actions and what they say. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the state of their emotions. I do know what their nation’s stated purpose is, I do know they continue in the development of nuclear weapons, and I know that they continue to support terrorists who are bent on the destruction of the state of Israel. You’ll have to ask someone who engages in this psycho stuff to talk about their emotions.

. . .

JG: Senator Obama has calibrated his views on unconditional negotiations. Do you see any circumstance in which you could negotiate with Iran, or do you believe that it’s leadership is impervious to rational dialogue?

JM: I’m amused by Senator Obama’s dramatic change since he’s gone from a candidate in the primary to a candidate in the general election. I’ve seen him do that on a number of issues that show his naivete and inexperience on national security issues. I believe that the history of the successful conduct of national security policy is that, one, you don’t sit down face-to-face with people who are behave the way they do, who are state sponsors of terrorism.

Senator Obama likes to refer to President Kennedy going to Vienna. Most historians see that as a serious mistake, which encouraged Khrushchev to build the Berlin Wall and to send missiles to Cuba. Another example is Richard Nixon going to China. I’ve forgotten how many visits Henry Kissinger made to China, and how every single word was dictated beforehand. More importantly, he went to China because China was then a counterweight to a greater threat, the Soviet Union. What is a greater threat in the Middle East than Iran today?

Senator Obama is totally lacking in experience, so therefore he makes judgments such as saying he would sit down with someone like Ahmadinejad without comprehending the impact of such a meeting. I know that his naivete and lack of experience is on display when he talks about sitting down opposite Hugo Chavez or Raul Castro or Ahmadinejad.

. . .

JG: Let’s go back to Iran. Some critics say that America conflates its problem with Iran with Israel’s problem with Iran. Iran is not threatening the extinction of America, it’s threatening the extinction of Israel. Why should America have a military option for dealing with Iran when the threat is mainly directed against Israel?

JM: The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust. That’s a commitment that the United States has made ever since we discovered the horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. In addition to that, I would respond by saying that I think these terrorist organizations that they sponsor, Hamas and the others, are also bent, at least long-term, on the destruction of the United States of America. That’s why I agree with General Petraeus that Iraq is a central battleground. Because these Shiite militias are sending in these special groups, as they call them, sending weapons in, to remove United States influence and to drive us out of Iraq and thereby achieve their ultimate goals. We’ve heard the rhetoric — the Great Satan, etc. It’s a nuance, their being committed to the destruction of the State of Israel, and their long-term intentions toward us.

A better explanation of the differences between the candidates will be hard to come by.

John McCain’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg is an interesting counterpoint to Barack Obama’s. In McCain’s interview, you will find not a trace of moral equivalence, no infatuation with Philip Roth (whom Obama apparently imagines as the paragon of American Judaism–perhaps needing a more up to date understanding of Roth’s legacy among many American Jews), and no hesitancy to denounce Islamic jihadism.

Reading the two interviews side-by-side provides a telling contrast between two world views and two approaches to foreign affairs. McCain goes out of his way to stress the role of diplomacy at the right level and the right time, but the main differences between the two candidates are stark. These three questions and answers sum it up:

JG: What do you think motivates Iran?

JM: Hatred. I don’t try to divine people’s motives. I look at their actions and what they say. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the state of their emotions. I do know what their nation’s stated purpose is, I do know they continue in the development of nuclear weapons, and I know that they continue to support terrorists who are bent on the destruction of the state of Israel. You’ll have to ask someone who engages in this psycho stuff to talk about their emotions.

. . .

JG: Senator Obama has calibrated his views on unconditional negotiations. Do you see any circumstance in which you could negotiate with Iran, or do you believe that it’s leadership is impervious to rational dialogue?

JM: I’m amused by Senator Obama’s dramatic change since he’s gone from a candidate in the primary to a candidate in the general election. I’ve seen him do that on a number of issues that show his naivete and inexperience on national security issues. I believe that the history of the successful conduct of national security policy is that, one, you don’t sit down face-to-face with people who are behave the way they do, who are state sponsors of terrorism.

Senator Obama likes to refer to President Kennedy going to Vienna. Most historians see that as a serious mistake, which encouraged Khrushchev to build the Berlin Wall and to send missiles to Cuba. Another example is Richard Nixon going to China. I’ve forgotten how many visits Henry Kissinger made to China, and how every single word was dictated beforehand. More importantly, he went to China because China was then a counterweight to a greater threat, the Soviet Union. What is a greater threat in the Middle East than Iran today?

Senator Obama is totally lacking in experience, so therefore he makes judgments such as saying he would sit down with someone like Ahmadinejad without comprehending the impact of such a meeting. I know that his naivete and lack of experience is on display when he talks about sitting down opposite Hugo Chavez or Raul Castro or Ahmadinejad.

. . .

JG: Let’s go back to Iran. Some critics say that America conflates its problem with Iran with Israel’s problem with Iran. Iran is not threatening the extinction of America, it’s threatening the extinction of Israel. Why should America have a military option for dealing with Iran when the threat is mainly directed against Israel?

JM: The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust. That’s a commitment that the United States has made ever since we discovered the horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. In addition to that, I would respond by saying that I think these terrorist organizations that they sponsor, Hamas and the others, are also bent, at least long-term, on the destruction of the United States of America. That’s why I agree with General Petraeus that Iraq is a central battleground. Because these Shiite militias are sending in these special groups, as they call them, sending weapons in, to remove United States influence and to drive us out of Iraq and thereby achieve their ultimate goals. We’ve heard the rhetoric — the Great Satan, etc. It’s a nuance, their being committed to the destruction of the State of Israel, and their long-term intentions toward us.

A better explanation of the differences between the candidates will be hard to come by.

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A Lame Attempt to Play Gotcha With McCain

The Washington Post, today:

Sen. John McCain stepped up his assault on Sen. Barack Obama‘s foreign policy credentials at a rally in Miami yesterday, criticizing Obama’s willingness to talk to Cuban President Raul Castro and other hostile foreign leaders without preconditions. But McCain’s argument was undercut when a 2006 video emerged of former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a prominent McCain supporter, saying that “talking to an enemy is not in my view appeasement.”

Am I missing something here? In the first place, Baker may have endorsed McCain, but he is not a figure on the campaign, not an employee of the McCain campaign. His views on this matter are nothing new — after all, in the vaunted Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq, he explictly called for direct talks with Iran and Syria. Was Glenn Kessler, the author of the Washington Post piece, on vacation that month?

 Nothing is undercut when someone who has endorsed a candidate is found to have said something that contradicts the candidate’s own views. The only person for whom that should be a problem is the endorser. Can he live with McCain’s difference of opinion? I really don’t care whether Baker can or can’t, but his view on the question of “talking to an enemy” isn’t in the least germane to McCain.

Clearly, there is an effort here to create an analogy between Baker and Obama advisers Samantha Power and Robert Malley, both of whom were let go from the campaign for saying things (Power) or doing things (Malley) injurious to Obama. Comparing these situations is preposterous. Power worked for Obama. Malley was offering policy advice to the campaign. Baker is a Republican eminence grise whose prominent advice on how to handle Iran has been affirmatively rejected by McCain, whose views on this matter, now, could hardly be more clear.

The Washington Post, today:

Sen. John McCain stepped up his assault on Sen. Barack Obama‘s foreign policy credentials at a rally in Miami yesterday, criticizing Obama’s willingness to talk to Cuban President Raul Castro and other hostile foreign leaders without preconditions. But McCain’s argument was undercut when a 2006 video emerged of former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a prominent McCain supporter, saying that “talking to an enemy is not in my view appeasement.”

Am I missing something here? In the first place, Baker may have endorsed McCain, but he is not a figure on the campaign, not an employee of the McCain campaign. His views on this matter are nothing new — after all, in the vaunted Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq, he explictly called for direct talks with Iran and Syria. Was Glenn Kessler, the author of the Washington Post piece, on vacation that month?

 Nothing is undercut when someone who has endorsed a candidate is found to have said something that contradicts the candidate’s own views. The only person for whom that should be a problem is the endorser. Can he live with McCain’s difference of opinion? I really don’t care whether Baker can or can’t, but his view on the question of “talking to an enemy” isn’t in the least germane to McCain.

Clearly, there is an effort here to create an analogy between Baker and Obama advisers Samantha Power and Robert Malley, both of whom were let go from the campaign for saying things (Power) or doing things (Malley) injurious to Obama. Comparing these situations is preposterous. Power worked for Obama. Malley was offering policy advice to the campaign. Baker is a Republican eminence grise whose prominent advice on how to handle Iran has been affirmatively rejected by McCain, whose views on this matter, now, could hardly be more clear.

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McCain On Cuba

Having temporarily exhausted the subject of Iran, John McCain moved on to Cuba today with a speech on Cuban Independence Day. Not surprisingly, he took issue with Barack Obama’s stated intention to talk directly (yes, again without preconditions) with Raul Castro:

Just a few years ago, Senator Obama had a very clear view on Cuba. When asked in a questionnaire about his policy toward Cuba, he answered: “I believe that normalization of relations with Cuba would help the oppressed and poverty-stricken Cuban people while setting the stage for a more democratic government once Castro inevitably leaves the scene.” Now Senator Obama has shifted positions and says he only favors easing the embargo, not lifting it. He also wants to sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro. These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba’s dictators – there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms, they can simply wait for a unilateral change in US policy. I believe we should give hope to the Cuban people, not to the Castro regime.

But McCain had broader thoughts in mind, taking Obama (and Hillary Clinton also) to task for suggesting we rip up NAFTA and for opposing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, accusing them of “wishing to retreat behind protectionist walls and undermine a key hemispheric ally.”

This, it seems, is a central anomaly in Obama’s foreign policy vision. For domestic political gain (i.e. the need to genuflect before Big Labor) Obama jettisoned his pledges to pursue multilateralism and improve our standing with our allies. It’s hard to think of two cases–withdrawing from a mutually beneficial trade agreement and abandoning a loyal ally under seige from Hugo Chavez–which would do more to undermine faith in America’s willingness to keep commitments and to raise fears that when the going gets tough (or not very tough at all, in Colombia’s case) we will throw our friends to the wolves of international terrorism. (Oh, wait–we would immediately abandon Iraq regardless of the consequences.)

So there is indeed a very interesting debate to be had: which candidate would improve our alliances and create greater international stability. That’s a nice substantive discussion worth a town hall debate or two.

Having temporarily exhausted the subject of Iran, John McCain moved on to Cuba today with a speech on Cuban Independence Day. Not surprisingly, he took issue with Barack Obama’s stated intention to talk directly (yes, again without preconditions) with Raul Castro:

Just a few years ago, Senator Obama had a very clear view on Cuba. When asked in a questionnaire about his policy toward Cuba, he answered: “I believe that normalization of relations with Cuba would help the oppressed and poverty-stricken Cuban people while setting the stage for a more democratic government once Castro inevitably leaves the scene.” Now Senator Obama has shifted positions and says he only favors easing the embargo, not lifting it. He also wants to sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro. These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba’s dictators – there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms, they can simply wait for a unilateral change in US policy. I believe we should give hope to the Cuban people, not to the Castro regime.

But McCain had broader thoughts in mind, taking Obama (and Hillary Clinton also) to task for suggesting we rip up NAFTA and for opposing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, accusing them of “wishing to retreat behind protectionist walls and undermine a key hemispheric ally.”

This, it seems, is a central anomaly in Obama’s foreign policy vision. For domestic political gain (i.e. the need to genuflect before Big Labor) Obama jettisoned his pledges to pursue multilateralism and improve our standing with our allies. It’s hard to think of two cases–withdrawing from a mutually beneficial trade agreement and abandoning a loyal ally under seige from Hugo Chavez–which would do more to undermine faith in America’s willingness to keep commitments and to raise fears that when the going gets tough (or not very tough at all, in Colombia’s case) we will throw our friends to the wolves of international terrorism. (Oh, wait–we would immediately abandon Iraq regardless of the consequences.)

So there is indeed a very interesting debate to be had: which candidate would improve our alliances and create greater international stability. That’s a nice substantive discussion worth a town hall debate or two.

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More on Florida

With regard to Barack Obama’s chances in Florida, there has been much focus on his problems with Jewish voters. But his stance on Cuba is just as problematic.  Florida’s he large Cuban American population voted overwhelmingly in the GOP primary McCain (and arguably made the difference in outcome).  Next week both candidates will speak before the Cuban American National Foundation, and Obama (presumably) will have to explain his stance on direct, unconditional talks with Raul Castro.

But that’s not the only Florida community that may have problems with Obama’s foreign policy views. His aversion to the Colombia Free Trade agreement and his willingness to meet with Hugo Chavez unconditionally may not sit well with other Hispanics in Florida (or elsewhere for that matter). With Chavez back in the news and further evidence of his mischief-making emerging,  McCain is likely to continue his emphasis on regional security threats. (He has frequently raised these issues when campaigning in Florida.)

This, coupled with Obama’s unrealistic and provocative threat to rip up NAFTA, has given McCain an opening to argue that he, not Obama, would improve relations in our hemisphere. What were popular positions for Obama in Rust Belt states and with left-leaning Democratic primary audiences may turn out to be far less appealing in a general election–and in Florida specifically.

With regard to Barack Obama’s chances in Florida, there has been much focus on his problems with Jewish voters. But his stance on Cuba is just as problematic.  Florida’s he large Cuban American population voted overwhelmingly in the GOP primary McCain (and arguably made the difference in outcome).  Next week both candidates will speak before the Cuban American National Foundation, and Obama (presumably) will have to explain his stance on direct, unconditional talks with Raul Castro.

But that’s not the only Florida community that may have problems with Obama’s foreign policy views. His aversion to the Colombia Free Trade agreement and his willingness to meet with Hugo Chavez unconditionally may not sit well with other Hispanics in Florida (or elsewhere for that matter). With Chavez back in the news and further evidence of his mischief-making emerging,  McCain is likely to continue his emphasis on regional security threats. (He has frequently raised these issues when campaigning in Florida.)

This, coupled with Obama’s unrealistic and provocative threat to rip up NAFTA, has given McCain an opening to argue that he, not Obama, would improve relations in our hemisphere. What were popular positions for Obama in Rust Belt states and with left-leaning Democratic primary audiences may turn out to be far less appealing in a general election–and in Florida specifically.

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Drawing Lines

I just came across these comments from former Congressman John Kasich: “So, Obama says he doesn’t want to vet his pastor. Why not? I mean, I vet my pastor all the time.” And: “Why not just denounce this guy and say this was crackpot stuff?” Well, doing this–assessing the content of your pastor’s character and rhetoric and then denouncing what is hateful and false–would pose two problems for Barack Obama.

First, he might lose support from some African Americans and some on the Left who sympathize with the general sentiments, if not the particulars, of Wright’s sermons. He would risk forfeiting whatever ever street cred he built up by associating with Wright’s church in the first place. Moreover, these Obama supporters would not be pleased and would likely see this as capitulating to his opponents.

But most importantly, this would mean Obama would himself have to draw a moral distinction, to take sides and say “no more.” Every indication we have suggests that he’s not comfortable doing this. He craves acceptance and adulation. (The recent Newsweek cover story on Obama implies he has been on a near-lifelong search for identity and belonging.) He sees his highest calling as being Reconciler in Chief. Indeed, one of the buzz phrases of his campaign is that he will “bring people together.” On “The View” he explained:

Part of what my role in my politics is to get people who don’t normally listen to each other to talk to each other, who [say] crazy things, who are offended by each other, for me to understand them and to maybe help them understand each other.

Hence, it’s not productive for him to dwell on calling out proponents of “crazy” things (a less judgmental way of saying “false” or “morally repugnant”) or to disassociate himself from such people. Likewise, there is no dictator he won’t speak to because his job is not to take sides. He is not interested, you see, in enforcing any criteria for who deserves the attention and status a Presidental visit would entail. His job is bridge-building.

In marriage counseling or labor mediation this attitude is all well and good: the goal there is not for either side to “win” but for both sides to survive and continue in a mutually beneficial relationship. But is the world of geopolitics like that? Sometimes. But there are moments when “understanding” is not the highest calling. We don’t really want to “understand” Raul Castro, for example, or boost his self-esteem so he might survive and flourish. Whether at home or abroad, most Americans really don’t want to tolerate, let alone encourage, those who propound vicious lies about whites, Israel, and America.

If someone can’t and won’t draw any line in the sand (even a relatively easy one), he’ll have a hard time defending America’s interests against those that don’t want to understand us, but destroy us. What he will be very good at is leading the country and the world into a morass of moral equivalence. And maybe that is why so many see great meaning in the Wright affair, and remain deeply troubled by it.

I just came across these comments from former Congressman John Kasich: “So, Obama says he doesn’t want to vet his pastor. Why not? I mean, I vet my pastor all the time.” And: “Why not just denounce this guy and say this was crackpot stuff?” Well, doing this–assessing the content of your pastor’s character and rhetoric and then denouncing what is hateful and false–would pose two problems for Barack Obama.

First, he might lose support from some African Americans and some on the Left who sympathize with the general sentiments, if not the particulars, of Wright’s sermons. He would risk forfeiting whatever ever street cred he built up by associating with Wright’s church in the first place. Moreover, these Obama supporters would not be pleased and would likely see this as capitulating to his opponents.

But most importantly, this would mean Obama would himself have to draw a moral distinction, to take sides and say “no more.” Every indication we have suggests that he’s not comfortable doing this. He craves acceptance and adulation. (The recent Newsweek cover story on Obama implies he has been on a near-lifelong search for identity and belonging.) He sees his highest calling as being Reconciler in Chief. Indeed, one of the buzz phrases of his campaign is that he will “bring people together.” On “The View” he explained:

Part of what my role in my politics is to get people who don’t normally listen to each other to talk to each other, who [say] crazy things, who are offended by each other, for me to understand them and to maybe help them understand each other.

Hence, it’s not productive for him to dwell on calling out proponents of “crazy” things (a less judgmental way of saying “false” or “morally repugnant”) or to disassociate himself from such people. Likewise, there is no dictator he won’t speak to because his job is not to take sides. He is not interested, you see, in enforcing any criteria for who deserves the attention and status a Presidental visit would entail. His job is bridge-building.

In marriage counseling or labor mediation this attitude is all well and good: the goal there is not for either side to “win” but for both sides to survive and continue in a mutually beneficial relationship. But is the world of geopolitics like that? Sometimes. But there are moments when “understanding” is not the highest calling. We don’t really want to “understand” Raul Castro, for example, or boost his self-esteem so he might survive and flourish. Whether at home or abroad, most Americans really don’t want to tolerate, let alone encourage, those who propound vicious lies about whites, Israel, and America.

If someone can’t and won’t draw any line in the sand (even a relatively easy one), he’ll have a hard time defending America’s interests against those that don’t want to understand us, but destroy us. What he will be very good at is leading the country and the world into a morass of moral equivalence. And maybe that is why so many see great meaning in the Wright affair, and remain deeply troubled by it.

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John McCain At The Western Wall

Here is a quite touching photo of John McCain at the Western Wall which provokes some reflection about where our presidents or future presidents should go and the symbolism created by their mere physical presence. McCain is telling his American and international audience that there is where he stands and will stand as president.

Throughout the early part of what for him is already a general election campaign, McCain’s goal continues to be to explain the very stark contrast between him and his Democratic opponents on how they see the world and how they envision America’s obligations. The dichotomy he would like us to see is this: he is a man who knows who are friends are, understands the stakes if we do not take our responsibilities seriously and refuses to play to the polls; his opponents, he contends, to varying degrees (either due to lack of political courage or lack of clear-sightedness) refuse to fess up with the American people about the stakes in Iraq and the type of adversaries we face around the world.

In contrast, Barack Obama speaks as though the dangers in the world are largely of our making and the “hard” thing is to “talk to our enemies.” For him what matters is to go and be seen by those who despise us.

It is, of course, demonstrably false that it is “hard” to go running off for meetings with Raul Castro and Ahmajinedad. In fact, the media will applaud, the Europeans will swoon and there are legions of academics who will encourage it. What really is hard is to stick by our friends and allies in the face of international pressure (or even when your personal “mentor” is villifying them in public) and see through unpopular commitments.

Where a president chooses to stand, visit and remain (or decline to walk out of) speaks volumes. McCain is hoping voters will come to understand that and agree with his choice of venues.

Here is a quite touching photo of John McCain at the Western Wall which provokes some reflection about where our presidents or future presidents should go and the symbolism created by their mere physical presence. McCain is telling his American and international audience that there is where he stands and will stand as president.

Throughout the early part of what for him is already a general election campaign, McCain’s goal continues to be to explain the very stark contrast between him and his Democratic opponents on how they see the world and how they envision America’s obligations. The dichotomy he would like us to see is this: he is a man who knows who are friends are, understands the stakes if we do not take our responsibilities seriously and refuses to play to the polls; his opponents, he contends, to varying degrees (either due to lack of political courage or lack of clear-sightedness) refuse to fess up with the American people about the stakes in Iraq and the type of adversaries we face around the world.

In contrast, Barack Obama speaks as though the dangers in the world are largely of our making and the “hard” thing is to “talk to our enemies.” For him what matters is to go and be seen by those who despise us.

It is, of course, demonstrably false that it is “hard” to go running off for meetings with Raul Castro and Ahmajinedad. In fact, the media will applaud, the Europeans will swoon and there are legions of academics who will encourage it. What really is hard is to stick by our friends and allies in the face of international pressure (or even when your personal “mentor” is villifying them in public) and see through unpopular commitments.

Where a president chooses to stand, visit and remain (or decline to walk out of) speaks volumes. McCain is hoping voters will come to understand that and agree with his choice of venues.

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Lesser of Two Democrats

There is plenty of chatter about Republicans’ support for Hillary Clinton. Did they help tip the balance in her favor in Texas? Are they simply making mischief to help the candidate they believe will be the weaker nominee?

Well the chatter may get louder in the wake of the Reverend Wright revelations and yesterday’s speech. Republicans now are coming around to the view that Obama is a terribly flawed candidate. Put differently, Republicans have discovered that Obama is worse than they thought, indeed perhaps worse than Hillary Clinton, the Cruella D’Ville of Republican politics.

Even before the Reverend Wright sermons were fully exposed there was plenty of reason for Republicans to be concerned about a possible Obama presidency. When Ted Kennedy swoons, Republicans worry. In other words, they suspect (with some justification based on the National Journal rankings) that Obama is far more liberal than Clinton and therefore antagonistic toward Republicans’ long term policy goals. Deep in their hearts they suspect Clinton is just “in it to win it” while Obama actually believes the hype, the left-leaning rhetoric and even some of his policy commitments.

Republicans have long suspected, for example, that Clinton’s lurch to the left on Iraq is simply a feint designed to capture the nomination and, as General Keane suggested, she wouldn’t really put the nation’s interests at risk by pulling out precipitously. Obama? He might, despite Samantha Power’s wishes to the contrary, actually mean what he says. Heck, if he’s willing to have tea with Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez why would he backtrack on his pledges to the netroot base to leave Iraq no matter what? Clinton, these Republicans surmise, tipped her hand when she voted in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. See, underneath is all she’s not a fuzzy-headed dove, they conclude.

So if at least some Republicans had identified Clinton as the lesser of the two evils before the Wright revelations what must they think now? Certainly the concern that Obama either agrees with, or will play footsie with, the most extreme elements on the left has been re-ignited. (This, of course, is not just a Republican worry- liberals are fretting, if not panicked that their great moral beacon is ethically dim.) They now have gnawing doubts about the moral fiber of a a man who, as Shelby Steele put it, “fellow-traveled with a little race hatred.”

And the notion that with an Obama presidency we would escape the mendacity of another round of the Clintons? That hope has been tempered as it has become increasingly evident that Obama’s honesty quotient isn’t much higher. If it were, the same man who found Reverend Wright too controversial to speak at his announcement kick off would not months later insist “I don’t think my church is actually particularly controversial.” Then there was an interview on Monday in which he came up with another excuse – he would have distanced himself sooner from Wright and Tony Rezko had he in been in Washington longer. Huh? That seemed, of course, to fly in the face of his goals to convince us that 1) he didn’t know about Wright’s statements earlier and 2) he finds Wright’s hate speech abhorrent.

Next was the speech. For many Republicans his effort to set up a moral equivalence between Grandma and Wright was just too much to bear. For Republicans, the speech shattered any illusion that for all his left-leaning views Obama holds the moral high ground against the Clintons.

So, it would be delightful, many Republicans still agree, to put a stake through the Clinton era of political savagery sooner rather than later. But in the end, politics is about choices. If some Republicans now seem to be rooting for Clinton, they may not be trying to game the system; they may just want to prevent the worst of the two Democrats from advancing one step closer to the presidency. Does it matter? Sure–Indiana, West Virginia, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and Montana are all open primaries. So Clinton’s hopes may rest (irony of ironies) on these Republicans helping her to beat an opponent they may dislike even more than she.

There is plenty of chatter about Republicans’ support for Hillary Clinton. Did they help tip the balance in her favor in Texas? Are they simply making mischief to help the candidate they believe will be the weaker nominee?

Well the chatter may get louder in the wake of the Reverend Wright revelations and yesterday’s speech. Republicans now are coming around to the view that Obama is a terribly flawed candidate. Put differently, Republicans have discovered that Obama is worse than they thought, indeed perhaps worse than Hillary Clinton, the Cruella D’Ville of Republican politics.

Even before the Reverend Wright sermons were fully exposed there was plenty of reason for Republicans to be concerned about a possible Obama presidency. When Ted Kennedy swoons, Republicans worry. In other words, they suspect (with some justification based on the National Journal rankings) that Obama is far more liberal than Clinton and therefore antagonistic toward Republicans’ long term policy goals. Deep in their hearts they suspect Clinton is just “in it to win it” while Obama actually believes the hype, the left-leaning rhetoric and even some of his policy commitments.

Republicans have long suspected, for example, that Clinton’s lurch to the left on Iraq is simply a feint designed to capture the nomination and, as General Keane suggested, she wouldn’t really put the nation’s interests at risk by pulling out precipitously. Obama? He might, despite Samantha Power’s wishes to the contrary, actually mean what he says. Heck, if he’s willing to have tea with Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez why would he backtrack on his pledges to the netroot base to leave Iraq no matter what? Clinton, these Republicans surmise, tipped her hand when she voted in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. See, underneath is all she’s not a fuzzy-headed dove, they conclude.

So if at least some Republicans had identified Clinton as the lesser of the two evils before the Wright revelations what must they think now? Certainly the concern that Obama either agrees with, or will play footsie with, the most extreme elements on the left has been re-ignited. (This, of course, is not just a Republican worry- liberals are fretting, if not panicked that their great moral beacon is ethically dim.) They now have gnawing doubts about the moral fiber of a a man who, as Shelby Steele put it, “fellow-traveled with a little race hatred.”

And the notion that with an Obama presidency we would escape the mendacity of another round of the Clintons? That hope has been tempered as it has become increasingly evident that Obama’s honesty quotient isn’t much higher. If it were, the same man who found Reverend Wright too controversial to speak at his announcement kick off would not months later insist “I don’t think my church is actually particularly controversial.” Then there was an interview on Monday in which he came up with another excuse – he would have distanced himself sooner from Wright and Tony Rezko had he in been in Washington longer. Huh? That seemed, of course, to fly in the face of his goals to convince us that 1) he didn’t know about Wright’s statements earlier and 2) he finds Wright’s hate speech abhorrent.

Next was the speech. For many Republicans his effort to set up a moral equivalence between Grandma and Wright was just too much to bear. For Republicans, the speech shattered any illusion that for all his left-leaning views Obama holds the moral high ground against the Clintons.

So, it would be delightful, many Republicans still agree, to put a stake through the Clinton era of political savagery sooner rather than later. But in the end, politics is about choices. If some Republicans now seem to be rooting for Clinton, they may not be trying to game the system; they may just want to prevent the worst of the two Democrats from advancing one step closer to the presidency. Does it matter? Sure–Indiana, West Virginia, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and Montana are all open primaries. So Clinton’s hopes may rest (irony of ironies) on these Republicans helping her to beat an opponent they may dislike even more than she.

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Florida and Michigan Do-Overs

Ever so gradually, the notion of do-over primaries in Florida and Michigan is taking hold. It really is the only solution that avoids excluding two important states and preserves the DNC’s position that they have the right to set the primary schedule (and to penalize these two states which jumped the queue in violation of party rules). Even the question of who will pay for the re-votes seems moot, as Governors Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania (yes, two Hillary Clinton backers) have agreed to raise the money.

So now over 350 delegates may very well be put back in play. In the first Florida primary Clinton “won” with virtually no campaigning. A look at the exit polls tells us she may be able to do it again. (Yes, the primary did not “count,” but over 935,000 people voted in it all the same.) 61 percent of these voters were 50 years or older and 78 percent of the voters were Hispanic or white. (You can be sure that Barack Obama’s comments about his willingness to meet with Raul Castro will make an appearance in Clinton ads during the run-up to the re-vote.)

In Michigan, Clinton will be looking at an electorate (according to the first primary’s exit polls) with 65 percent non-college-educated voters, 83 percent of voters making less than $100,000 per year, and 73 percent of voters who are either Hispanic or white. Now, the Michigan exits may be less representative, given the smaller turnout on the first go-around. But if Ohio tells us that Clinton does well with downscale white voters in economically distressed states, then Michigan looks promising.

That Obama lead of 100 or so delegates? It may not be so secure after all.

Ever so gradually, the notion of do-over primaries in Florida and Michigan is taking hold. It really is the only solution that avoids excluding two important states and preserves the DNC’s position that they have the right to set the primary schedule (and to penalize these two states which jumped the queue in violation of party rules). Even the question of who will pay for the re-votes seems moot, as Governors Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania (yes, two Hillary Clinton backers) have agreed to raise the money.

So now over 350 delegates may very well be put back in play. In the first Florida primary Clinton “won” with virtually no campaigning. A look at the exit polls tells us she may be able to do it again. (Yes, the primary did not “count,” but over 935,000 people voted in it all the same.) 61 percent of these voters were 50 years or older and 78 percent of the voters were Hispanic or white. (You can be sure that Barack Obama’s comments about his willingness to meet with Raul Castro will make an appearance in Clinton ads during the run-up to the re-vote.)

In Michigan, Clinton will be looking at an electorate (according to the first primary’s exit polls) with 65 percent non-college-educated voters, 83 percent of voters making less than $100,000 per year, and 73 percent of voters who are either Hispanic or white. Now, the Michigan exits may be less representative, given the smaller turnout on the first go-around. But if Ohio tells us that Clinton does well with downscale white voters in economically distressed states, then Michigan looks promising.

That Obama lead of 100 or so delegates? It may not be so secure after all.

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President Bush Gets It Right

Driving around town this morning I happened to tune into the President’s press conference. I confess I have stopped listening to them. I had long ago concluded that the histrionic press corps and the testy and now too-familiar replies from the President generally failed to illuminate or even amuse. However, I must say he was effective and even articulate on several topics of much interest in the upcoming race.

First, he was passionate and persuasive on free trade. (In reality, outside the confines of a Democratic primary now bearing down on Ohio, there are few, if any, justifications for unilaterally backing out of NAFTA.) President Bush made the domestic economic argument (i.e. we have gained jobs and are dependent on exports, and future high-paying jobs depend on open markets) as well as the international argument (i.e. if you want to help our friends and our own standing in the world then backing out of NAFTA is a strange way to go about it). It may not be popular in some states, but, like the President, John McCain is indisputably on the right side of this issue. (Or perhaps Obama doesn’t really mean what he says.)

President Bush also lit into Congress for holding up FISA re-authorization on the issue of immunity for telecommunications companies. As he said, how are we going to conduct surveillance and get private companies to cooperate if they are free game for the plaintiffs’ bar? Again, I would like to hear Barack Obama’s defense on this one.

President Bush also gave a rather articulate explanation as to why we should not sit down with Raul Castro, especially with no preconditions. He reeled off a list of reasons–giving prestige to a dictator, demoralizing human rights activists, and thwarting reform efforts. This is yet another issue on which, outside the confines of a liberal Democratic primary audience, Obama may have a harder time with his position.

Finally, President Bush echoed a point that McCain has picked up on: Obama’s notion that we should leave Iraq immediately but double back if Al-Qaeda reappeared is simply uninformed and goofy. The President noted that the terrorists did try to set up a base in Anbar province and the Marines successfully (at least so far) have defeated them. Obama will find a far tougher argument against an opponent whose main response is something other than “me too.”

All in all, I was reminded that on certain subjects President Bush can be quite effective.  Granted, much of the public may have tuned Bush out. But there is general election on the horizon in which a new, very forceful Republican can make his pitch on positions which (I suspect) will resonate with a good chunk of the electorate.

Driving around town this morning I happened to tune into the President’s press conference. I confess I have stopped listening to them. I had long ago concluded that the histrionic press corps and the testy and now too-familiar replies from the President generally failed to illuminate or even amuse. However, I must say he was effective and even articulate on several topics of much interest in the upcoming race.

First, he was passionate and persuasive on free trade. (In reality, outside the confines of a Democratic primary now bearing down on Ohio, there are few, if any, justifications for unilaterally backing out of NAFTA.) President Bush made the domestic economic argument (i.e. we have gained jobs and are dependent on exports, and future high-paying jobs depend on open markets) as well as the international argument (i.e. if you want to help our friends and our own standing in the world then backing out of NAFTA is a strange way to go about it). It may not be popular in some states, but, like the President, John McCain is indisputably on the right side of this issue. (Or perhaps Obama doesn’t really mean what he says.)

President Bush also lit into Congress for holding up FISA re-authorization on the issue of immunity for telecommunications companies. As he said, how are we going to conduct surveillance and get private companies to cooperate if they are free game for the plaintiffs’ bar? Again, I would like to hear Barack Obama’s defense on this one.

President Bush also gave a rather articulate explanation as to why we should not sit down with Raul Castro, especially with no preconditions. He reeled off a list of reasons–giving prestige to a dictator, demoralizing human rights activists, and thwarting reform efforts. This is yet another issue on which, outside the confines of a liberal Democratic primary audience, Obama may have a harder time with his position.

Finally, President Bush echoed a point that McCain has picked up on: Obama’s notion that we should leave Iraq immediately but double back if Al-Qaeda reappeared is simply uninformed and goofy. The President noted that the terrorists did try to set up a base in Anbar province and the Marines successfully (at least so far) have defeated them. Obama will find a far tougher argument against an opponent whose main response is something other than “me too.”

All in all, I was reminded that on certain subjects President Bush can be quite effective.  Granted, much of the public may have tuned Bush out. But there is general election on the horizon in which a new, very forceful Republican can make his pitch on positions which (I suspect) will resonate with a good chunk of the electorate.

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Hillary Takes On Obama On Foreign Policy

Hillary Clinton delivered (amidst the distraction of costume-gate, which makes me think this was not an official Clinton tactic) a foreign policy address in Washington D.C. today. The full text is here. There is much standard fare: immediate withdrawal from Iraq, a strong dose of protectionism and lots of shots at President Bush. But the message is also clear: she is no softy, and Barack Obama is not ready to be commander-in-chief. On Cuba she had this to say:

We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rouge regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

She also threw this jab:

If I am entrusted with the presidency, America will have the courage once again to meet with our adversaries. But I will not be penciling in the leaders of Iran or North Korea or Venezuela or Cuba on the presidential calendar without preconditions, until we have assessed through lower level diplomacy, the motivations and intentions of these dictators. Raul Castro, for example, has a stark choice. He can continue to stifle human rights and economic freedom in Cuba, or he can chart a new course toward democratic reform. We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rouge regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

There are a few problems with this approach as a campaign strategy (other than the fact it comes too late). First, she needs to say it directly in a debate when eyes are trained on both of them, not in a speech no cable network chose to carry. Unless she is willing to do that, it is not only too late –it’s too little. Second, she tries to do the best she can with her own resume (traveling to China, sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee), but it is rather thin and the obvious response from Obama is that she is hardly more experienced than he. And finally, the their policy positions ( more restrictionist trade policy, get tough with China, get out of Iraq) are not very different at all. Voters are left to stratch their heads about how in practice a Clinton foreign policy would differ from an Obama foreign policy (other than in willingness to lunch with tyrants). Now, she does rough him up a bit, and the language is worth saving for a general election attack by John McCain. But is this enough to knock Obama off his glide path to the nomination? Not likely, I think.

Hillary Clinton delivered (amidst the distraction of costume-gate, which makes me think this was not an official Clinton tactic) a foreign policy address in Washington D.C. today. The full text is here. There is much standard fare: immediate withdrawal from Iraq, a strong dose of protectionism and lots of shots at President Bush. But the message is also clear: she is no softy, and Barack Obama is not ready to be commander-in-chief. On Cuba she had this to say:

We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rouge regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

She also threw this jab:

If I am entrusted with the presidency, America will have the courage once again to meet with our adversaries. But I will not be penciling in the leaders of Iran or North Korea or Venezuela or Cuba on the presidential calendar without preconditions, until we have assessed through lower level diplomacy, the motivations and intentions of these dictators. Raul Castro, for example, has a stark choice. He can continue to stifle human rights and economic freedom in Cuba, or he can chart a new course toward democratic reform. We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rouge regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

There are a few problems with this approach as a campaign strategy (other than the fact it comes too late). First, she needs to say it directly in a debate when eyes are trained on both of them, not in a speech no cable network chose to carry. Unless she is willing to do that, it is not only too late –it’s too little. Second, she tries to do the best she can with her own resume (traveling to China, sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee), but it is rather thin and the obvious response from Obama is that she is hardly more experienced than he. And finally, the their policy positions ( more restrictionist trade policy, get tough with China, get out of Iraq) are not very different at all. Voters are left to stratch their heads about how in practice a Clinton foreign policy would differ from an Obama foreign policy (other than in willingness to lunch with tyrants). Now, she does rough him up a bit, and the language is worth saving for a general election attack by John McCain. But is this enough to knock Obama off his glide path to the nomination? Not likely, I think.

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McCain Blogger Call

John McCain just completed another blogger call. He began by talking about Kosovo, saying he believed it would be an independent country and that Vladimir Putin’s comments were “very unhelpful” and his discussion of Georgia’s breakaway provinces was “outrageous.” He also again took Barack Obama to task for offering to meet with Raul Castro without preconditions. He stated that Raul was “the bad guy of the duo” and responsible for sentencing people to death and maintaining a dictatorship and that McCain would only meet with him after “the prisons were emptied,” fair elections were held and other conditions had been met. (In response to a question later in the call he noted that the danger in meeting with Raul would be to legitimize him when a transition to a freer system might otherwise be possible. He argued that the embargo policy had successfully contained Castro.)

I asked him about the potential Democratic nominees’ unwillingness to recognize progress in Iraq. He said he was “disappointed but not surprised they continue to deny obvious facts” that political and military progress was being made. He termed it “almost Orwellian” that people would assert that the threat of withdrawal actually contributed to improved conditions. He suggested that his opponents need not “apologize” but they should admit they were wrong in opposing the surge. (He offered that MoveOn.org has a “significant influence in the Democrat party.”)

Abe Greenwald asked about Jay Lefkowitz’s criticisms (which were given the back of the hand by Secretary of State Condi Rice) that the Six Party talks involving North Korea should address human rights abuses. McCain said succinctly that he does believe the talks should address human rights and that North Korea remains the world’s largest functioning “gulag.” (He mentioned his disappointment that the South Korean government was not as “mindful” of the human rights abuses as it should be.) He said undue focus on the make-up of the talks rather than the content was misguided and drew analogies to Vietnam, mentioning that talks went on unsuccessfully for years until “B-52′s appeared in the skies.” He said that he was concerned about the North Korea’s failure to live up to its committments and its potential involvement with Syria’s nuclear program. (He ended his response by quoting Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” addage.)

On other matters: 1) He expressed “distress” that Congressman Rick Renzi was indicted and agreed he would likely step down as an Arizona co-chair; 2) He said he was on “solid ground” in withdrawing from the public financing constraints imposed by the FEC as Congressman Dick Gephardt previously had done in similar circumstances; 3) He said he would be competitive in California and states in the northeast like New Jersey and even New York and intended to go to places Republicans usually don’t and compete in all states.; 4) Explained his “100 years in Iraq” comment as an indication that our security arrangements would be ongoing but that we would be successful militarily in the short term and defended himself against the Democratic charges that he was not expert on the economy by saying he was most expert on foreign policy given his decades of involvement in that area, but that his low tax, free market philosophy would stack up well against the Democrats. He declined to comment further on the New York Times lobbyist story.

In general, he seemed engaged and forward looking. There was no trace of animus or bitterness about yesterday’s events, and he seemed energized when talking about differences with his Democratic opponents.

John McCain just completed another blogger call. He began by talking about Kosovo, saying he believed it would be an independent country and that Vladimir Putin’s comments were “very unhelpful” and his discussion of Georgia’s breakaway provinces was “outrageous.” He also again took Barack Obama to task for offering to meet with Raul Castro without preconditions. He stated that Raul was “the bad guy of the duo” and responsible for sentencing people to death and maintaining a dictatorship and that McCain would only meet with him after “the prisons were emptied,” fair elections were held and other conditions had been met. (In response to a question later in the call he noted that the danger in meeting with Raul would be to legitimize him when a transition to a freer system might otherwise be possible. He argued that the embargo policy had successfully contained Castro.)

I asked him about the potential Democratic nominees’ unwillingness to recognize progress in Iraq. He said he was “disappointed but not surprised they continue to deny obvious facts” that political and military progress was being made. He termed it “almost Orwellian” that people would assert that the threat of withdrawal actually contributed to improved conditions. He suggested that his opponents need not “apologize” but they should admit they were wrong in opposing the surge. (He offered that MoveOn.org has a “significant influence in the Democrat party.”)

Abe Greenwald asked about Jay Lefkowitz’s criticisms (which were given the back of the hand by Secretary of State Condi Rice) that the Six Party talks involving North Korea should address human rights abuses. McCain said succinctly that he does believe the talks should address human rights and that North Korea remains the world’s largest functioning “gulag.” (He mentioned his disappointment that the South Korean government was not as “mindful” of the human rights abuses as it should be.) He said undue focus on the make-up of the talks rather than the content was misguided and drew analogies to Vietnam, mentioning that talks went on unsuccessfully for years until “B-52′s appeared in the skies.” He said that he was concerned about the North Korea’s failure to live up to its committments and its potential involvement with Syria’s nuclear program. (He ended his response by quoting Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” addage.)

On other matters: 1) He expressed “distress” that Congressman Rick Renzi was indicted and agreed he would likely step down as an Arizona co-chair; 2) He said he was on “solid ground” in withdrawing from the public financing constraints imposed by the FEC as Congressman Dick Gephardt previously had done in similar circumstances; 3) He said he would be competitive in California and states in the northeast like New Jersey and even New York and intended to go to places Republicans usually don’t and compete in all states.; 4) Explained his “100 years in Iraq” comment as an indication that our security arrangements would be ongoing but that we would be successful militarily in the short term and defended himself against the Democratic charges that he was not expert on the economy by saying he was most expert on foreign policy given his decades of involvement in that area, but that his low tax, free market philosophy would stack up well against the Democrats. He declined to comment further on the New York Times lobbyist story.

In general, he seemed engaged and forward looking. There was no trace of animus or bitterness about yesterday’s events, and he seemed energized when talking about differences with his Democratic opponents.

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McCain’s Verbal Missile Crisis

John McCain was not at his most prudent when he recently said of Fidel Castro: “I hope he has the opportunity to meet Karl Marx very soon.” The funny line is, in its way, a welcome change from the mild reverence that’s attended the dictator’s retirement. But in wishing Fidel Castro a speedy trip to hell, McCain is begging critics to accuse him of being unreasonable, hot-headed, and generally too ill-tempered to serve as president.

With Fidel gone, it is at least conceivable that the next U.S. president will be called upon to step up U.S.-Cuban diplomacy. It’s not hard to imagine the chill that McCain’s words might cast on a face-to-face-meeting between himself and Fidel’s brother and successor Raul. To make matters colder still, McCain also said, “Apparently [Fidel] is trying to groom his brother Raul. Raul is worse in many respects than Fidel was.”

McCain’s lucky in a few respects here. The statements are not that easy for American politicians to criticize. Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton need to go on record as defending Fidel or Raul Castro. This could keep their lips buttoned. And Mike Huckabee, whose campaign just may be far enough out there to hint at some kind of defense of Raul, has fallen off the radar. No matter what, this is a reminder that McCain’s anti-talent for sound-bites remains his biggest liability.

John McCain was not at his most prudent when he recently said of Fidel Castro: “I hope he has the opportunity to meet Karl Marx very soon.” The funny line is, in its way, a welcome change from the mild reverence that’s attended the dictator’s retirement. But in wishing Fidel Castro a speedy trip to hell, McCain is begging critics to accuse him of being unreasonable, hot-headed, and generally too ill-tempered to serve as president.

With Fidel gone, it is at least conceivable that the next U.S. president will be called upon to step up U.S.-Cuban diplomacy. It’s not hard to imagine the chill that McCain’s words might cast on a face-to-face-meeting between himself and Fidel’s brother and successor Raul. To make matters colder still, McCain also said, “Apparently [Fidel] is trying to groom his brother Raul. Raul is worse in many respects than Fidel was.”

McCain’s lucky in a few respects here. The statements are not that easy for American politicians to criticize. Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton need to go on record as defending Fidel or Raul Castro. This could keep their lips buttoned. And Mike Huckabee, whose campaign just may be far enough out there to hint at some kind of defense of Raul, has fallen off the radar. No matter what, this is a reminder that McCain’s anti-talent for sound-bites remains his biggest liability.

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Why Is McCain Pleased?

“In all the uproar, no one has challenged what we actually reported.” That howler was part of a statement issued yestersday by New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. It would be true, if you did not include John McCain, his lawyer, his aides, his surrogates, the woman in question, and a large percentage of the media. The Page neatly summarized where things stood less than 24 hours after the story broke: “Paper of Record has worse day in the media than the subject of its Thursday scoop.” As a political matter, it turned some of his harshest critics into his defenders, and given Mike Huckabee’s wise move to defend McCain, the episode has hastened his reconcilliation with the Republican base.

Aside from his Chuchillian brush with the Times (“There is no greater exhilaration than being shot at without result”), McCain must have been very happy last night. The Democratic debate suggested a number of fruitful avenues for him to explore in the general election. On many points which Hillary Clinton did not or could not engage Barack Obama, McCain can and will. On earmarks, Obama will be hard pressed to grab the mantle of fiscal cheapstake from McCain. On Iraq, Obama’s curious concession that the reduced violence is a mere “tactical” victory will, of course, be met with query as to why we would retreat after both military and some political success. On Cuba, the Florida voters in particular will be interested in this response as to whether Obama would meet with Raul Castro:

I would meet without preconditions, although Senator Clinton is right that there has to be preparation. It is very important for us to make sure that there was an agenda and on that agenda was human rights, releasing of political prisoners, opening up the press. And that preparation might take some time. . . And then I think it is important for us to have the direct contact not just in Cuba, but I think this principle applies generally. I’m — I recall what John F. Kennedy once said, that we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate. And this moment, this opportunity when Fidel Castro has finally stepped down I think is one that we should try to take advantage of.

And I suspect that McCain will do even better than Clinton on the “describe the moment that tested you the most, that moment of crisis” question.

“In all the uproar, no one has challenged what we actually reported.” That howler was part of a statement issued yestersday by New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. It would be true, if you did not include John McCain, his lawyer, his aides, his surrogates, the woman in question, and a large percentage of the media. The Page neatly summarized where things stood less than 24 hours after the story broke: “Paper of Record has worse day in the media than the subject of its Thursday scoop.” As a political matter, it turned some of his harshest critics into his defenders, and given Mike Huckabee’s wise move to defend McCain, the episode has hastened his reconcilliation with the Republican base.

Aside from his Chuchillian brush with the Times (“There is no greater exhilaration than being shot at without result”), McCain must have been very happy last night. The Democratic debate suggested a number of fruitful avenues for him to explore in the general election. On many points which Hillary Clinton did not or could not engage Barack Obama, McCain can and will. On earmarks, Obama will be hard pressed to grab the mantle of fiscal cheapstake from McCain. On Iraq, Obama’s curious concession that the reduced violence is a mere “tactical” victory will, of course, be met with query as to why we would retreat after both military and some political success. On Cuba, the Florida voters in particular will be interested in this response as to whether Obama would meet with Raul Castro:

I would meet without preconditions, although Senator Clinton is right that there has to be preparation. It is very important for us to make sure that there was an agenda and on that agenda was human rights, releasing of political prisoners, opening up the press. And that preparation might take some time. . . And then I think it is important for us to have the direct contact not just in Cuba, but I think this principle applies generally. I’m — I recall what John F. Kennedy once said, that we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate. And this moment, this opportunity when Fidel Castro has finally stepped down I think is one that we should try to take advantage of.

And I suspect that McCain will do even better than Clinton on the “describe the moment that tested you the most, that moment of crisis” question.

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The Oil-for-Bananas Summit

Yesterday, in the southern Cuban city of Cienfuegos, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez opened the Petrocaribe Summit. The day-long gathering attracted about a dozen Latin American and Caribbean heads of state, including Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Raul Castro, who is effectively running Cuba for his ailing brother, was there as well. American allies also showed up.

And it’s not hard to see why the meeting was well attended. Chavez, who sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, was offering energy on easy terms. At present, Venezuela ships almost 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day to Cuba. Cuba pays for the oil by stationing thousands of its doctors in Venezuela, where they provide free care for the poor. Chavez, at the summit, wanted to extend the barter arrangement to other nations by accepting local products such as bananas and sugar.

The barter option—“a new mechanism” in the words of Chavez’s Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez—is already available to members of Petrocaribe, the Venezuela-funded energy alliance founded in 2005, but it does not appear to be widely used. That doesn’t mean Chavez’s “brothers” in the region have not been taking advantage of his largesse. In about a year, they have accumulated debts of almost $1.2 billion to Venezuela. Chavez thinks the debt will grow to $4.6 billion by 2010. At present, Petrocaribe members can defer payment of 40 percent of their oil bill and take as long as 25 years to pay Caracas with 1 percent interest when the price of crude exceeds $40 a barrel. Is it any wonder that even Honduras, a traditional friend to Washington, became the alliance’s seventeenth member yesterday? Guatemala may also want in.

“We have begun to create a new geopolitics of oil that is not at the service of the interests of imperialism and big capitalists,” the Venezuelan leader said yesterday. Unfortunately for him, subsidized arrangements do not last, and that is all Chavez is offering to his neighbors. The American vision of trade binding the region together is sustainable, but it is failing for a multitude of reasons. One of them is Boss Hugo, who blasted Washington. “Free trade doesn’t exist,” he said as he asked his fellow leaders to resist the failed “dictatorship of world capitalism.” Chavez may sound like a buffoon, but whether we like it or not, he is challenging the notions that underpin the West. It is time for President Bush—and the candidates seeking to replace him—to focus on the region that borders our own.

Yesterday, in the southern Cuban city of Cienfuegos, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez opened the Petrocaribe Summit. The day-long gathering attracted about a dozen Latin American and Caribbean heads of state, including Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Raul Castro, who is effectively running Cuba for his ailing brother, was there as well. American allies also showed up.

And it’s not hard to see why the meeting was well attended. Chavez, who sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, was offering energy on easy terms. At present, Venezuela ships almost 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day to Cuba. Cuba pays for the oil by stationing thousands of its doctors in Venezuela, where they provide free care for the poor. Chavez, at the summit, wanted to extend the barter arrangement to other nations by accepting local products such as bananas and sugar.

The barter option—“a new mechanism” in the words of Chavez’s Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez—is already available to members of Petrocaribe, the Venezuela-funded energy alliance founded in 2005, but it does not appear to be widely used. That doesn’t mean Chavez’s “brothers” in the region have not been taking advantage of his largesse. In about a year, they have accumulated debts of almost $1.2 billion to Venezuela. Chavez thinks the debt will grow to $4.6 billion by 2010. At present, Petrocaribe members can defer payment of 40 percent of their oil bill and take as long as 25 years to pay Caracas with 1 percent interest when the price of crude exceeds $40 a barrel. Is it any wonder that even Honduras, a traditional friend to Washington, became the alliance’s seventeenth member yesterday? Guatemala may also want in.

“We have begun to create a new geopolitics of oil that is not at the service of the interests of imperialism and big capitalists,” the Venezuelan leader said yesterday. Unfortunately for him, subsidized arrangements do not last, and that is all Chavez is offering to his neighbors. The American vision of trade binding the region together is sustainable, but it is failing for a multitude of reasons. One of them is Boss Hugo, who blasted Washington. “Free trade doesn’t exist,” he said as he asked his fellow leaders to resist the failed “dictatorship of world capitalism.” Chavez may sound like a buffoon, but whether we like it or not, he is challenging the notions that underpin the West. It is time for President Bush—and the candidates seeking to replace him—to focus on the region that borders our own.

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